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When the NHL named Las Vegas as the home of its 31st franchise in 2016, the reaction was mixed. There were those who saw exactly why the league wanted in on the city – tons of tourists around looking for something fun to do in a place designed for debauchery, a market previously untapped by major professional sports, and a metro area that had climbed to more than 2.3 million at the time. Many others thought heading to the transient capital of the world in the middle of the desert was a terrible idea for hockey, not to mention the negatives of openly tying yourself to gambling.
The Golden Knights are soon to conclude their sixth season in the NHL, and it took half as long for it to be abundantly clear who was correct.
In the matter of a half-decade, Las Vegas went from a shunned subject for major professional sports inclusion to leagues falling over themselves to plant their flag on the Strip. In 2017, the NFL approved the Raiders to move from Oakland to Las Vegas, which the team finally did in 2020. MLB’s Oakland Athletics have made no secret about their intentions to uproot for Nevada, and if everything goes the team’s way, the A’s will be playing ball in the desert next spring. The WNBA has been in there since 2018, and the NBA and MLS jumping in eventually feels like a foregone conclusion, too.
Everything that the NHL bet on hit big. The Golden Knights are a fixture in the top half of the league’s attendance charts, they were ranked as the 12th-most valuable NHL franchise ($975 million) by Sportico in 2022, and the Las Vegas metro area has added about 350,000 people since the first NHL puck dropped in the city.
There’s a strong local fan base, and the nature of Vegas has sprouted enclaves of fans across the country – walk around any major metropolitan area in America long enough, and there’s a reasonable chance you’ll see someone wearing some Golden Knights merch. Plenty of other hockey fans who enjoy Las Vegas have planned their trips around when their favorite team has a road game in Sin City.
That Las Vegas is situated in a non-traditional hockey region is another mark against the naysayers of the mid-2010s. In hockey, there has always been an undertone of mistrust toward southern markets, presuming the Sun Belt population had neither interest in nor knowledge of the sport. That’s another myth dispelled by the Golden Knights (along with other Southern teams, too).
Any possible complications theorized around association with betting are dead. As it turns out, this was a terrible calculation of the American psyche – sports gambling is legal in 28 states and counting, plus the District of Columbia.
It would be irresponsible to discuss the team’s fast success without mentioning the favorable expansion draft rules the NHL provided for Vegas that prior expansion teams did not get. Those conditions were crucial to laying the foundation that has led to perennial playoff appearances, four Conference Finals runs, two Stanley Cup Finals showings, and a potential championship on the way in 2023. Even with everything the city of Las Vegas can offer a sports team, no franchise can realize its full commercial potential without winning.
Regardless, the NHL and Golden Knights have more than proven the validity of the Las Vegas sports market. Is it a guaranteed hit for every sport? That remains to be seen.
There are still reasons for doubt over the mass sports migration to Las Vegas. It’s possible that the unique factors that favor the NHL (first mover advantage and a notoriously great live sporting event that includes fights, hits, and generally embraces revelry) and NFL (mass popularity and significantly fewer games) are the driving forces behind those leagues flourishing in southern Nevada. Maybe for a sport like baseball, which has about double the number of games as the NHL and generally attracts a more laid-back, family-friendly crowd, Las Vegas won’t bear the same fruits.
Would the introduction of the NBA, MLB, and/or MLS dilute the pool too much? Is the appetite for sports in Vegas so strong that it should become one of the handfuls of North American markets to have four major sports teams in its midst, joining up with cities like Toronto, Miami, Denver, and Boston?
The ultimate elephant in the room is climate change. The metro area’s population has been steadily increasing for years, but will harsh droughts make large population centers in deserts unsustainable in the medium or long-term future? It doesn’t matter how well a sports team would do in a vibrant Vegas if there’s not enough water.
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’m pretty sure we’ll have them sooner rather than later. The momentum is too strong, and the potential bags are too big for these leagues to let the dollar signs leave their eyes. There is obviously something there, and nobody is naïve enough to ignore that now. Las Vegas will have more than only the Golden Knights and Raiders in town by the end of the decade, it’s merely a matter of what and when.
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